With the inaugural scent of fall in the air, our first ESPN Experts Mock Fantasy Hockey Draft is in the books. Participating in a mock draft (or several) before embarking on the real deal is an extremely wise move in fantasy play. Regardless of whether you have the best plan of action possible beforehand, unless other drafters are involved, you'll never get a real feel for how your drafting strategy will play out. Besides, mock drafts are fun. To that end, we hope you'll take advantage of our free mock draft and mock auction lobbies to help sharpen your draft-day instincts.
As for the basics with our mock, we involved 10 drafting teams using standard ESPN scoring. The categories for skaters include goals, assists, plus/minus, power-play goals, shots on goal, penalty minutes and time on ice. Goalies are rated on wins, goals-against average and save percentage.
Unless otherwise indicated, the participating drafters are my fellow ESPN fantasy hockey contributors. Here they are, in first-round order: Timo Seppa (of Puck Prospectus), Pierre LeBrun (ESPN NHL columnist), Tim Kavanagh, Andrew Rothstein (of Puck Prospectus), Sean Allen, Jim Wilkie, John Pereira, Victoria Matiash (me), Tristan H. Cockcroft and Pierre Becquey (fantasy editor).
Me: Possessing the eighth pick, I had Jeff Carter loosely targeted before Allen scooped him with his fifth choice. So I grabbed Pavel Datsyuk instead. My first-round hope was to secure an offensive player who could be reasonably expected to flirt with 100 points, while totaling more than 30 goals. Datsyuk fit the bill nicely. Alex Ovechkin would've been my dream pick, but slotted where I was, there was little-to-nil chance of my grabbing him.
The others: Three drafters opted for goalies right off the bat, which isn't uncommon given that two goalies will essentially decide your share of 30 percent of the points, and all deserved to be chosen early. Considering the availability of Evgeni Malkin, I did question LeBrun's second selection overall of Sidney Crosby, considering the larger emphasis on goals versus assists in this fantasy league. Keep in mind: A power-play goal counts in three categories (G, PPG, SOG) whereas a power-play assist simply counts as an assist. And I'd put money on Malkin finding the back of the net slightly more often than Crosby again this season.
Chatter outcry: Some challenged the choice of Marc Savard by Becquey, considering again the emphasis on goal scoring as opposed to being the set-up man. But Becquey defended his decision by heralding Savard's potentially high plus/minus rating with the Boston Bruins, and insisted he had solid plans of picking up several hot-shot goal scorers in later rounds. This retort was accepted by most.
Me: I wanted either Ryan Getzlaf or Mike Green, so when Cockcroft went with Getzlaf, my mind was made up. There are only a handful of top-tier fantasy defensemen out there, as opposed to forwards, and I'm always more comfortable with a couple of them under my belt in the earlier stages of any draft. In the case of Green, who joined the scoring record books last season at the age of 23, I got the best.
The others: Wilkie shocked me the most by going with Joe Thornton, especially since he opted for a goalie in the first round. Many believe Thornton is due to rebound this season and near the 100-point mark, but he's still an elite playmaker -- less of a goal scorer. That's Dany Heatley's job, and it should be noted that this mock draft took place before the trade happened. The consensus among the participants is that, had the mock draft been held after Heatley joined the Sharks, he wouldn't have lasted long past the first round, as Becquey indicated he'd probably have taken Heatley instead of Savard without the threat of Heatley's plus/minus getting "all Senatored up." That said, at that point in time and with Thornton ranked 29th overall, Wilkie had a decent shot of grabbing Thornton in the third round, while using his second pick for someone else.
Me: Although some may say I chose him marginally prematurely, with power-play goals at a premium, I like Mike Knuble a lot. Now with the Washington Capitals, the ex-Flyer is going to be a massive asset with the man advantage. Watch him plunk his generously sized frame inches in front of the opposing net, and use his skilled hands to redirect/tip/swipe in whatever he can. I can't wait.
The others: A shout-out to Seppa and Kavanagh for choosing Bobby Ryan and Corey Perry respectively. The Ryan/Getzlaf/Perry trio may very well be the best line in all the NHL this season. As much love as I proclaimed for Knuble directly above, if either Ryan or Perry were available for my choosing, the situation would've rolled out differently.
Wilkie went with Daniel Sedin, which doesn't rock my boat whatsoever. It's not that the better half of the famous Vancouver twosome isn't a good player -- he is -- but he has his ceiling. Daniel Sedin will never reach 90 points in the NHL; he never has, and he never, ever will. There's no "sky's the limit" potential here, and that makes him a ho-hum, wet-blanket choice for me in the third round. But, full disclaimer: The Sedin twins bore me in general. Mournfully so. And that's probably not a valid enough reason to slam someone else's fantasy pick.
Chatter outcry: There was some ballyhooing back and forth about Tomas Vokoun being picked so early by Rothstein, particularly since the Florida Panthers starter saw a depreciation in starts last season. The Panthers may not win too many games, and solid backup Scott Clemmensen was added to the roster in replacement of Craig Anderson. The panel was clearly split on this choice.
Me: I went with ex-Florida Panther Jay Bouwmeester to complement my earlier pick of Green on defense. Even though I had to sacrifice the choice of a forward, I felt secure in the feeling of having the best one-two fantasy punch in terms of blueliners, although Becquey comes close with early-round acquisitions of Boston Bruins teammates Zdeno Chara and Dennis Wideman. Signed by the Calgary Flames, Bouwmeester will log a load of ice time and enjoy plenty of scoring chances alongside defensive partner Dion Phaneuf.
The others: Another run on goalies here. Only Becquey and I remain without a netminder at this point (more to come on that later). Pekka Rinne, acquired by Allen, is the most striking pick. Rinne really impressed in his first full season with the Nashville Predators last season (seven shutouts!) but he's still young and relatively inexperienced. Call this choice a slight gamble, but with tons of upside.
Chatter outcry: Allen emitted a slight yelp regarding my Bouwmeester pick, since he already had Phaneuf. It would have been nice to have both top Flames defensemen on the same fantasy roster, he insisted. I agreed. Too bad for Allen.
Me: Offseason troubles aside, and now in his third year, Patrick Kane is in position for a shot at a 90-point season, heavy on the goals. If anything, Kane should use this summer's legal issues as extra incentive to win back the affection of any Chicago Blackhawks fan who may have been turned off by the young man's ill-advised actions. Skating with a sprained ankle at times, he still managed 70 points in 80 games last season. And he's still only 20 years old.
The others: I like Cockcroft's choice of Vincent Lecavalier here, with the 49th pick overall. Look for a large improvement in Lecavalier's performance and production over last season, not only because he's finally healthy again, but because the Tampa Bay Lightning signed Alex Tanguay. Along with Martin St. Louis, Tanguay and Lecavalier will skate on the top line and breathe some fresh life into the Lightning's offense. This trio could be one of the season's best and I had hoped Lecavalier might stick around so I could add him to my own roster the following round.
Chatter outcry: Some moaning from the others when Seppa snagged Mark Streit, clearly a favored prospect at this point in the draft. Streit shocked nearly everyone by amassing 56 points in 74 games with the New York Islanders last season, while maintaining a respectable plus/minus of plus-6. His situation with the Isles hasn't altered much and Streit should lead all defensemen in points, by a substantial margin, once again. Seppa didn't have a blueliner to this stage and was wise to nail down Streit.
Me: Remember when Sidney Crosby was ranked relatively low, fantasywise, before his rookie season back in 2005, and then he went on to tally 102 points? Well, that's why I picked John Tavares. With four full seasons as a junior on his résumé before becoming a draft option (a rarity), this year's No.1 pick is poised to make an impression right away. No, I don't expect Tavares to reach the 100-point plateau, but the hope of him becoming a point-per-game producer in his rookie year is far from ridiculous. They call him a phenom, after all. And that's why I want him on my squad.
The others: One of the most interesting rounds thus far as Wilkie chose Scott Niedermayer, Kavanagh went with Marian Gaborik and Seppa opted for then-Senator Dany Heatley. Niedermayer may disappoint since he's (a) ancient and (b) no longer playing with Chris Pronger (now with the Philadelphia Flyers). However, yes, ol' gray beard could still have enough left in the tank to finish off his career with a flourish.
It'll be interesting to see if Gaborik can stay healthy in New York, because if he can, he should lead the team in scoring. Stamp this pick a "moderate" risk with lots of upside.
As for Heatley, he's clearly a bargain here now that he's with the Sharks, rewarding Seppa for his proactive thinking. It's not as if Heatley's trade demands were kept secret, and if, at worse, Heatley had stayed in Ottawa, this would have been a fine spot to grab him and address his plus/minus deficiency with later picks.
Chatter outcry: There was quite a stir about Cockcroft going with Henrik Lundqvist, as some proclaimed he was overrated as a fantasy asset (ranked 83rd by ESPN overall). The term "bust" wasn't actually used, but it was certainly insinuated. I didn't understand what all the fuss was about. Despite posting only three shutouts last season (10 in '07-'08), Lundqvist is consistent. And shutouts aren't counted in this league. It struck me as a solid pick, anyway.
Me: I had my eyes on Nikolai Khabibulin right from the beginning; after last season's performance with the Chicago Blackhawks, I'm a believer. Now with the Edmonton Oilers, and away from Cristobal Huet, Khabibulin will get the lion's share of starts. And the Oilers are just decent enough to not cause extraneous concern. But I'm not throwing all my fantasy goalie marbles into Khabibulin's basket either, as you'll see in Round 11.
The others: Pereira surprised some by going with Thomas Vanek. A fantasy letdown in the past, due to injury and a mild psychological issue, Vanek appears completely healthy at present (body and mind). He's a 40-goal scorer; having reached that mark twice in his four years in the league. As a seventh-round selection, I'm sold.
Chatter outcry: A large split in opinion concerning Alexandre Burrows, as chosen by Kavanagh. About half of us endorsed the pick while the rest hollered: "Bust!" Whether Burrows can stay disciplined just enough to not hurt his Vancouver Canucks teammates and earn time with the aforementioned unremarkable-but-consistent Sedins will determine his fantasy value throughout the season.
Me: I went with Nathan Horton for no other reason than that he was still available and ranked fairly high. Also, with all that talent, the Florida Panther is due to rebound from last season's injury-riddled, disappointing performance (45 points in 67 games). There's nowhere for Horton to go but up.
The others: Not having made much of an impression to this point, good or bad, Rothstein should be acknowledged for his pick of Brad Boyes. A mainstay on the St. Louis Blues' first power-play unit, with a wicked shot, Boyes should lead the team in scoring once again.
Me: I adore Mikko Koivu as a fantasy player this season. He gets bigger and better every year and is the undisputed offensive leader of the Minnesota Wild. In his prime, at 26 years old, Koivu could reach the 90-point plateau by April. I had him penciled in as a priority of mine from the get-go.
The others: Wilkie made a questionable move by going with Marian Hossa, since he's had shoulder surgery and won't return until late November. Hossa is undeniably a fantasy star, but late November could easily become mid-December, or even later. Now you've endured nearly half a season without your ninth-round pick. But if Hossa blasts out of the Chicago Blackhawks' gates earlier, and healthy, the gamble will have paid off.
Chatter outcry: There was plenty of discussion regarding Cockcroft's choice of Steven Stamkos. After most concurred that, yes, Stamkos did finish off last season well after an unsatisfactory start, I pointed out that he reportedly put on almost 20 pounds in the offseason. The inevitable "fat jokes" were made and then we moved on, having agreed Stamkos and his improved physique would likely have a good year.
Me: By Round 10, I'd finally forgiven Alexei Kovalev enough for the unpleasant roller coaster ride he took me on last fantasy season, with only highly irregular spurts of inspired play. Away from his Montreal comfort zone, Kovalev will be pressed to impress his new teammates, coaches and fans as a freshly minted Ottawa Senator. There's no denying the winger is one of the best anywhere when he wants to be, and now that Heatley has vacated a spot for Kovalev on the top line with Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza, all should be grand.
The others: Sergei Gonchar should be considered a minor steal by Wilkie this late in the draft, particularly since we're hearing his knee is much improved and he's listed as no worse than "day-to-day." At age 35, Gonchar will never again be the fantasy gem he was in the past, but as the undisputed leader of the Pittsburgh Penguins' defense, he'll still produce regularly. Besides, he's a free agent after this season, and skaters have been known bring a little bit of extra oomph to their game when there's a fresh contract to play for.
Chatter outcry: Some "ohhhs" and "ahhhs" regarding Kavanagh's pick of goaltender Jonas Gustavsson. "The Monster," who hails from Sweden, was talked into signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs by GM Brian Burke this summer, and Leaf Nation couldn't be more excited. Although, in fairness, that's partly because Toronto fans have little else to get worked up about. In Gustavsson's favor, the Leafs' defensive corps was enhanced in the offseason. Unfortunately, their offense was not. Also, we just don't know all that much about this guy, or more to the point, how he'll adjust to the North American game. It's difficult to predict what kind of numbers Gustavsson will post, since there are so many unknown variables at play. But as a drafter, kudos to Kavanagh for making this ballsy move; I would've waited a couple of rounds longer.
Me: Along with Khabibulin, I had my fingers crossed Ray Emery would be available for the plucking when it suited my timing. Called a "hothead" by seemingly everyone, Emery will be forced to behave, at least for a while, after last year's stint in Russia. He's slated to be the Philadelphia Flyers' No.1, but will lose that job to Brian Boucher if he doesn't toe the line and stay disciplined. I'm betting he behaves. Furthermore, with an extremely tough Flyers defense out in front, his job will be easier in Philly than it would be elsewhere. Should all the chips fall in place, Emery is in position to have an excellent season.
The others: Zach Bogosian and Martin Havlat were the clear standout picks in this round, chosen by Kavanagh and Wilkie, respectively. At age 19 and with a previously broken leg all healed up, Bogosian is primed to break out as a star blueliner with the Atlanta Thrashers. He's a scrappy young fella and isn't frightened of racking up buckets of minutes in the sin bin. Meanwhile, Havlat actually managed to endure an entire regular season without falling apart to injury. That's reason enough to gamble on the talented winger; and as a new member of the Minnesota Wild, his newfangled surroundings won't hurt either.
Me: It was high time to snag another defenseman, so I took a slight leap of faith with Victor Hedman. This rookie is massive (6-foot-6), smart, mature and skilled. He's projected to be a top-four defenseman with the Tampa Bay Lightning even before seeing his first minute of ice time in the NHL. This pick may have been a bit premature, but I was feeling feisty. Besides, I already had Green and Bouwmeester secured in my back pocket.
The others: LeBrun went with another blueliner I had on radar in Kris Letang. The 22-year-old has been a fixture on the Pittsburgh Penguins' power play ever since Ryan Whitney was traded to the Anaheim Ducks last season. Only a healthy Gonchar carries more fantasy value on the Pens' defense this season.
On the flip side, Becquey let me down the most this round by choosing Sean Avery. I have no faith in the guy. Zero. He'll break your fantasy heart, time and time again. You don't have to be a psychologist to realize Avery doesn't have the selfless mentality needed to play any physical team sport with consistent discipline. It's only a matter of weeks before his relationship with the rest of the New York Rangers (coaches, players, etc.) falls apart. Again.
Chatter outcry: After confirming that I had, in fact, picked Hedman, Emery and Tavares throughout the draft -- all high-risk acquisitions -- Allen went on to question my sanity. Fair play. But I insisted that you must make a few kooky moves if you want to reap big dividends. The meek may indeed inherit the earth one day, but they'll never finish better than fourth or fifth in their fantasy hockey leagues.
Me: I went with Alex Tanguay and couldn't have been more pleased about it. Tanguay made the decision to sign with the Tampa Bay Lightning this summer after having personal conversations with fellow Quebecois Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, his projected linemates. As mentioned above in discussing Lecavalier, this trio could be one of the most productive in the NHL all season long, and I wanted to own at least a third of it.
The others: Pereira took a risk with his choice of Phil Kessel. As a raw player, Kessel is supremely talented, but he's hurt and unsigned as a restricted free agent. After having shoulder surgery, he's not expected back until at least December. It's difficult to get terribly enthusiastic about a guy when you don't know when or where he's going to play.
Chatter outcry: There was much talk about Allen's choice of Daniel Briere, but less about the pick and more about the character of the man himself. Having interviewed him personally, LeBrun said he was one of the nicest people you could ever meet, professional athlete or otherwise. Then Wilkie, also having made Briere's acquaintance, agreed, he was, indeed, a great gentleman. Draft assessment aside, I feel comfortable in speaking for everyone in saying that, at that moment, we all wished Mr. Briere a fine and healthy season.
Me: I decided to plump up my penalty-minute potential by reeling in David Clarkson from the New Jersey Devils. When it comes to points and PIMs, Clarkson will get you both, in fairly equal servings. Plus, he won't drive you bonkers like Sean Avery inevitably will. Bonus. And this is where my admittedly tiresome anti-Avery rant ends for good. At least as far as this column is concerned.
The others: Seppa earned the "top choice" medal this round by snagging Mike Ribeiro. The Dallas Star fell out of fantasy favor a little bit last season when he didn't equal his surprising numbers of the previous season (83 points in 76 games, plus-21). Yet he still tallied 78 points. Not too shabby. The minus-6 rating by season's end wasn't all that slick, but still, 78 points! I'll take a decent shot at 80 points with my 14th-round pick anytime.
Me: I went with Pavel Kubina as the "yin" to my Victor Hedman "yang." Where Hedman is young, exciting and capricious, Kubina is middle-aged (for a pro hockey player), steady and predictable. I'm not knocking the new Atlanta Thrasher, just the opposite. Outside of the pressurized bubble that is Toronto's hockey market, Kubina now has the freedom to do what he does best without the constant analysis and criticism. And that is rifle the puck at the net, a lot, and amass 40 total points by season's end. There are no surprises with Kubina, and that's fine by me.
The others: As a new addition to the Vancouver Canucks' roster, Mikael Samuelsson may play on the top line with the Sedin twins, and will see some time skating on the power play. Chosen by Wilkie, Samuelsson could flourish in his new surroundings.
Cockcroft also went with another new Canuck in Christian Ehrhoff. As a much-needed plug to a gaping hole in Vancouver's defense, Ehrhoff could near the 42 points he collected last season as a San Jose Shark.
Me: In Bouwmeester's absence, Bryan McCabe is the new top dog on the Florida Panthers' blue line. At least where it concerns the team's offensive defenseman. As a power-play specialist, McCabe did rack up 57 points in '06-'07, and a handful more the season previous. And although he's past putting up those kind of numbers, as my fifth D-man, he doesn't have to.
The others: My oh my, how easily and far the mighty can fall. Only a mere year ago, Marty Turco was a valid No.1 fantasy netminder and now he's a bona fide 16th-rounder. Pereira was the one to grab him as his third goalie option, behind Martin Brodeur and Semyon Varlamov. In other drafting action, Cockcroft went with the PIM-accumulating machine named Daniel Carcillo, and Kavanagh invested in John Tavares' potential by opting for the youthful Kyle Okposo. The two are likely Islanders linemates. Solid moves, all of them.
Me: This is my favorite personal move of the entire draft. As a new member of the Anaheim Ducks, Saku Koivu is expected to skate with Teemu Selanne on the second line, while earning power-play opportunities along the way. Every opposing defense is going to be zoned right in on muffling the Ducks' top unit of Ryan/Getzlaf/Perry. Watch Koivu really blossom as he flies under the radar while brushing off 13 years of Montreal intensity. I hope he's as excited for himself as I am.
In the 18th round, I went with Ryan Suter as the Robin to Shea Weber's Batman (acquired by Pereira earlier). Suter and Weber are the top defensive pairing with the Nashville Predators and they'll be responsible for the bulk of the production from the blue line. There's little doubt I'm going to take a kick in the pants in the plus/minus department with Suter in the mix, but he's my sixth and final D-man and won't leave his bench spot if I don't give the go-ahead.
The others: Allen's pick of Todd Bertuzzi sticks out here as a small gamble with loads of upside. Fully fit, Bertuzzi will have the chance to play on any of the Detroit Red Wings' top three lines -- giving him a real shot at putting up some good numbers. As the master of his own fate, his role will be decided by him alone.
In another admirable move, Seppa went with Mike Smith. The Lightnings' No.1 goaltender is ranked too low, fantasy-wise, as far as I'm concerned. He played well last season when the rest of the team didn't. Now that Tampa's defense is improved, Smith's numbers will be better also.
Me: In my second-favorite personal move of the draft (honestly, I prefer the later rounds to the early ones, there's so much more room to be creative), I went with the newest member of the New York Rangers, Vaclav Prospal. He had an awful past season, but did fairly well the season previous, so I think a new environment could provide some much-needed inspiration.
As another sleeper pick, I chose another new Ranger, Christopher Higgins. It'll be interesting to see where Higgins finds a spot on this offense, but if he works hard, coach John Tortorella could very well present him with some ripe scoring opportunities.
The others: After crossing the continent and joining the Toronto Maple Leafs this offseason, Francois Beauchemin finally found another new home on Pereira's roster. Beauchemin's production has been in decline over the last while, but he still has an excellent shot, and is projected to skate alongside Tomas Kaberle. Drafting him at this stage seems just about right.
Me: Corralling new Colorado Avalanche goaltender Craig Anderson was a nice bonus for me here. If Ray Emery turns his NHL comeback into a gong show, or just performs poorly, at least I'll have Anderson's warm body to fill the position next to Nikolai Khabibulin. Besides, Anderson put up some lovely numbers with the Florida Panthers last season and is Colorado's No.1 at this point.
On my end, the draft concluded with a whimper instead of a bang. I went with Andrei Kostitsyn simply because he was still up for grabs. If Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez and Mike Cammalleri can't all get along on the Montreal Canadiens' top line, Andrei could wiggle up there.
The others: LeBrun made an exceptionally wily move by grabbing Erik Johnson of the St. Louis Blues. Finally healthy (and steering clear of golf carts, I would guess), Johnson is in good shape to start becoming the monster defenseman we always expected him to be. I'm annoyed at myself for not noticing Johnson's availability earlier, and would've picked him instead of Ryan Suter. Very nice LeBrun, very nice.
Victoria Matiash is a fantasy hockey analyst for ESPN.com.